It would be simple to tell you that Ambergris is a soft, gray, stone-like matter originating in the intestine of the Physeter catodon (sperm whale) that is used as an anchoring note in perfume. But that would be doing this magical substance such an injustice and there is so much more to tell. Thanks to the wonderful Ambergris Co., NZ I have gotten to know its alluring ways and can tell the tale.
Ambergris is a dusky jewel created in a whale’s stomach like an oyster creates a pearl by surrounding an irritant. It is formed around the sharp beaks of cuttlefish/squid (that are one of their favorite foods) and other sharp objects in the whale’s stomach to ease the passage out of the mighty beast. Being exponentially larger than an oyster, chunks of this miraculous substance have been found as large as 1400 pounds. What are most often found are lumps of 15g to 50 kg that are light and grayish in color. In fact, fresh Ambergris is rather revolting stuff. It is the gentle action of sea and salt and sun that metamorphoses ambergris into an exquisite perfume in a transformational ocean voyage that takes years.
Although it can be taken from a slaughtered whale and artificially aged, thankfully it is now nearly always harvested on beaches around the world by fortunate beachcombers who recognize the soft gray rocks. At nearly $10,000 a pound, it is a treasure indeed and terribly rare. Most of us know the scent of ambergris only through perfumer's chemical recreations.
Christmas 2009, Heston Blumenthal made a great deal of fuss about using authentic ambergris in his Christmas dinner for the BBC. He prepared it in a cucumber geleé with a caviar sorbet to great acclaim from those lucky enough to partake in the extraordinary meal.
What is it that makes Ambergris so special? As Elena at the brilliant blog Perfume Shrine says: “Natural ambergris has a wonderful tinge of saltiness, almost brine-y, encompassing elements of skin-like musky tones, and even a subtly sweetish accent. Its greatest attribute is its capacity for rendering a composition rounder, especially in oriental perfumes or in floral compositions where it melds the notes into one and brings out their best qualities. It clings on to fabric too, through repeated washings even, becoming ever sweeter with time. Therefore it is prized for its fixative power: the ability to anchor more volatile notes and make them last. “
What many people do not know is that Ambergris was not only used as a perfume but had a subtle role as an ingredient in food and drink for many centuries. No wonder, since ambergris makes everything it touches more of what it is... an amazing quality. One reads of its use in recipes of the Renaissance but it appeared more often in earlier books, under the influence of mediaeval Arab traditions (The Arabs regarded ambergris as an aphrodisiac and used it for this purpose). Its use survived in France into the 19th century as an additive for chocolate as a drink, witness a famous passage in Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826) hailing chocolat ambré as one of the most effective restoratives.
La Chocolatiere, Liotard 1744
"This is the appropriate place," says Brillat-Savarin, "to speak of the properties of chocolat ambré, chocolate with ambergris, properties which I have verified through many experiments, and the results of which I proudly present to my readers. Therefore, let every man who has drunk a few too many draughts from the cup of pleasure, every man who has spent a good portion of time working that ought to have been spent sleeping, every witty man who feels he has temporarily become dull, every man who finds the air close, the time long and the atmosphere oppressive, every man who finds himself tormented by an obsession that takes away his free thought, let all of them, we say, administer to themselves a good half litre of chocolat ambré, at the rate of 60 to 72 grains of amber per half kilogram(pound), and they will experience a marvel."
In The Physiology of Taste Brillat–Savarin also praises ambergris chocolate as the “chocolate of the afflicted.” “I knew that Marshal Richelieu, of glorious memory,” he writes, “constantly chewed ambergris lozenges; as for myself, when I get one of those days when the weight of age makes itself felt––a painful thought––or when one feels oppressed by an unknown force, I add a knob of ambergris the size of a bean, pounded with sugar, to a strong cup of chocolate, and I always find my condition improving marvelously.”
Worldwide Gourmet tells us "It was from Madame d'Arestrel, superior of the Convent of the Visitation in Belley, that Brillat-Savarin learned the art of making a good chocolate, a mixture of Caraque, Sainte-Madeleine and Berbice. " 'Monsieur,' Madame d'Arestrel said to me over 50 years ago, 'When you would like to have some good chocolate, have it made the night before in a faience coffee pot and leave it. Resting overnight will concentrate it and give it a velvetiness that makes it even better. The good Lord cannot object to this little refinement, since He Himself is all excellence.'"
Antonin Carême, the famous cook to Talleyrand, Tzar Alexander and the Prince Regent of England, refined the recipe even further by adding cognac, honey, fresh cream and toasted almonds.
Larousse Gastronomique laments “such chocolate no longer exists.” It's a pity that ambergris figures only as a memory in confectionery and perfumery today. Hunting some down for your own taste buds is well worth the effort, however. Whether added to coffee or chocolate, I can attest to its rewarding effects and its abiding aroma that mysteriously lingers through the day. Once savored, its bouquet is forever seared in one's memory."
Also from Brillat-Savarin via Worldwide Gourmet:“Happy chocolate, which after crossing the world, In women's smiles Finds death in a melting delicious kiss from their mouth."
Chocolate Ambre for 2
6 oz boiling water
1 oz shaved 100% chocolate
1 tsp sugar OR
1 tsp. mild honey (Champlain Valley Apiaries)
1 bean sized piece of Ambergris
Crush the Ambergris into sandy particles with the sugar (or in the honey) and put it and the boiling water into a large heat proof cup and stir until dissolved.
Next add the shaved chocolate and stir until dissolved.
Store the chocolate, covered at room temperature overnight. The chocolate will swell and the mixture will become velvety. At this point you can either use a Cappuccino steamer to froth and warm the chocolate or heat it gently and whisk into a froth ( a double boiler would do so that you could leave the chocolate in its cup). Take care when you pour the chocolate that you do not lose the grains of Ambergris. Another alternative to this is to heat the Ambergris in the bowl of 1 or 2 spoons over a low flame… this only takes seconds so take care! Then put the spoons into the hot chocolate and let sit with the chocolate overnight. Use the spoons to drink the chocolate licking the spoon decadently, the Ambergris becomes waxy and stubborn on the spoon… but the work is worth it… serve in small espresso cups.
Alternately, add a tablespoon of cognac and a dollop of cream for a stronger drink that could be served in a stemmed glass. Either way you will have an extraordinary treat.
***Lest you think this an extravagance, a few grams will more than suffice ( at $20 a gram) for a few servings of chocolate
Next, Ambergris and chocolate with jasmine… in the style of Cosimo de Medici III. Romance in a cup.